When Mara Natkin and Gloria Ramirez heard there was going to be a Night Market in downtown Madison, they knew they had to be a part of it.
They've sold their greeting cards at the Milwaukee Night Market and they love the evening atmosphere.
“It definitely feels like you’re in a totally different city,” Natkin said. “It has a totally different vibe. I don’t know if I can explain it.”
Natkin and Ramirez weren't the only ones excited about the event. They were among some 50 vendors that set up on West Gilman Street on Thursday night, as a sizeable crowd of Madisonians ventured downtown to check out the first of three Night Markets this summer.
The market, along West Gilman Street between State Street and University Avenue, featured the standbys of many other Madison markets, including food carts, live music and Stella’s Bakery, the Dane County Farmer’s Market staple.
“It’s like not a Madison market if you don’t have cheese bread,” said Tiffany Kenney, executive director of the Madison's Central Business Improvement District (BID).
The event ran from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
BID and the city of Madison organized the market, which was motivated by a combination of national and local trends: there’s been a shift in shopping habits to later in the day and the recent downtown retail study recommended that vendors take their existing retail operations to other locations like markets, pop-up events and fairs, she said. The whole point of the market is to generate interest and activity in the BID.
That was working for Stacey Scannell, who owns The Soap Opera on State Street. She set up a booth just a block away from her store.
“I just want to get in front of everybody,” she said.
That’s important, she said, because even though The Soap Opera relies on a lot of foot traffic, people can get used to walking by without a second glance.
“Customers have said tonight, ‘Oh my god, I love your store, I should pop in sometime!’” she said. “They forget about us.”
About 25 percent of the vendors were downtown businesses like the Soap Opera, Little Luxuries and Short Stack, Kenney said. Local artists, food carts and vendors made up the remaining 75 percent. Nearby businesses like Art Gecko and the Chocolate Shoppe stayed open late and wooed attendees with special sales.
Scannell was not the only vendor who was excited about the extra exposure of the market.
Eder Valle sat a table carving a cantaloupe into a rose. He owns Fruta Aresana, a company that creates elaborate fruit centerpieces and decorations for special events. A lot of people don’t know what he does is possible, he said, and he came to the market to show off his craft.
“You don’t know who you’ll bump into,” said Valle.
Valle knows that from experience. The last time he accepted an invitation to an event, he ended up on a Milwaukee TV show.
“I learned don't say no to opportunities,” he said.
While the market had over 50 sponsors, vendors and partners, there’s a waiting list for 20 more, Kenney said. Kenney was just grateful that any vendors were willing to give the market a shot.
“They were taking a risk, as this is the first time we’ve done this,” she said. “We appreciate everyone willing to take a chance on this.”
Plenty of Madison residents were also willing to try out the market; by 9:30 p.m., there were over 5,000 attendees, Kenney said.
“It’s a lovely evening, and it’s something new and different,” said Michelle Pauser, who attended the market with her daughter.
Ellen Nibbelink goes to the west side farmer’s market every week, and came to the Night Market with an out-of-town friend.
“It’s a way to see State Street at it’s best,” she said.
Jamie Sugarman came with her family because they “wanted to come out to support all the different creative people around town.”
“It’s adorable so far,” Michele Waldinger said early in the night after receiving a free cookie and listening to music from the UW marching band.
Each market will feature live music and after the marching band, the Cash Box Kings took over the Lisa Link Peace Park to play. People gathered on the grass, some eating food from nearby vendors, to listen to the music.
The market was well attended, and was fairly crowded even before it got dark. To some, that crowded atmosphere just made the experience more authentic.
Night markets have long been popular in Asia and started popping up in U.S. cities like Philadelphia, New York, Chicago, Cleveland and Milwaukee in recent years. They’ve done particularly well in cities with large Asian populations.
Jay Lerner owns the Marco Pollo food cart from Milwaukee. His business partner, Lydia Tai, is from from Taiwan. She said that while the Milwaukee market has wide streets, the narrower West Gilman street made it seem more like an Asian night market experience.
“She was so excited, ‘It feels like I’m in Taiwan!’” Lerner said.
Lerner was bringing in steady business early in the night, as customers lined up for nachos, cheese curds and crispy chicken.
At a ribbon-cutting ceremony for the market, Madison Mayor Paul Soglin expressed gratitude for all the vendors and volunteers who had made the night a reality.
“What makes a great place is the people,” Soglin said. “The space would mean nothing if there weren’t any people here.”